You can passively spend time in meetings, careening from one to the next. Maybe somebody will give you credit for being “present”, but don’t expect those meeting hours to have a good ROI. It’s the equivalent of driving on “autopilot” while your brain is busy elsewhere. Leaders need to bring a high level of situational awareness into meetings.
One of the best descriptions of situational awareness I’ve heard comes from a retired Army Ranger; he characterized levels of awareness by color:
White – You’re mindlessly oblivious of your surroundings.
Yellow – You’re mostly on autopilot, but notice a few things about your environment.
Orange – You’re on high alert about everything in your environment (movement, colors, objects, smells) and conscious of your heart rate and breathing. You’re thinking about what could happen and develop proactive management plans for multiple possibilities.
Black – You kill anything that moves.
Let’s not get to Black, okay? But, far too often we are barely in Yellow. How could you get to an Orange level of situational awareness in meetings?
Consciously observe what people say, and how they say it. Pay attention to context like seating arrangement, who is driving the discussion, who is trying to break into the conversation (and why).
You are probably in meetings with many of the same people over time. It is important to go deeper. Seek to understand the worldview of others and their value structure. What drives their perspective? Engineers and Marketing VPs think differently about money, problems, and how they appear to others. Once you have a better understanding of their worldview you can work with them, and not assume they have to come around to your perspective. It’s possible to keep your value system without judging others. Use what you know to optimize meeting outcomes.
Over time you will develop a baseline for individuals. This gives you the ability to spot aberrations quickly – to know when something has irritated them, or when they are not ready to make a decision. You will also learn that posture cues can be misleading. For example, I misinterpreted one woman’s posture as aloof and dismissive, because she almost always sits with her legs and arms crossed. Later I realized this petite woman is simply cold in air-conditioned conference rooms.
There are a few things to watch out for:
- You may over-emphasize commentary you’ve heard from others about an individual. Shared comments may lead you to unhelpful inaccurate expectations.
- We all have a strong tendency to catch negatives more than positives, and give them more weight in our baseline.
- Your own energy levels and mood strongly affect how you perceive others. Be wary of making conclusive evaluations on a Friday afternoon if you’re tired and grumpy.